Susan Raffo

On vacation with the bearded lady

Filed By Susan Raffo | August 24, 2010 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: COLAGE, gender transgression, privilege, queer family, shaving, vacation, Winnipeg

A few weeks back, while meandering through a park, Luca, our daughter, refused to hold my partner's hand. Lake Winnipeg Fishing (1).jpgNow, this wouldn't particularly stand out if it weren't that she was still happy to hold my hand, swinging it back and forth, gently rubbing my arm up and down with her flat palm. But when her other mother reached for her, she pulled away, stating that she prefers to walk by herself.

It took me a minute to notice what was going on and then, when the two of us were alone together, to ask my daughter about it: "You're having a hard time with how many people stare at your mãe, aren't you?" Mãe, by the way, is Portuguese for mother.

This was it. Exactly. For her first eight years, Luca didn't notice the stares - both curious and hostile - that can gather around her mãe's body, around my partner, Rocki's body, when we are out in public. You know the stares - the "What are you?" stares, those moments of gender policing.

But now Luca notices them and for her, they are constant. And they feel very personal. However much they are directed at Rocki, Luca feels them as though they were all about her. And it makes her want to hide somewhere. It makes her walk carefully outside, her head down and her hand holding tight to mine.

Here is how Luca describes gender and her queer family: one mother plucks the hair from her chin and the other doesn't. This means that one has a little beard while the other one is smooth. Gender.

One of the things that Rocki and I feel fiercely is that it isn't Luca's job to protect us nor to make us, her parents, proud. We have been taught this by the children of queer families involved with COLAGE and through Abigail Garner's work. Luca gets to figure out for herself what it means to have queer parents. She gets to find her own ways of surviving and thriving and they don't include taking care of us or fighting homophobia on our behalf.

It also means that as her parents, we have to remember that we have no idea what she is going through. Being queer - whether gender transgressive or not - is different from having queer parents. Which is different again from having one queer parent who operates outside of traditional gender expectations. There is a different measuring of self against the world around us.

And this is also still about homophobia and gender norming which affects Luca, even as it affects Rocki and I. It just affects each of us differently. You see, when I notice the stares directed towards Rocki, it brings out my fierce protector self. If someone is staring at Rocki in that cold objective way - like she was some specimen on a petrie dish - I try and step into the line of their gaze and match it. Kind of like a "You think no one notices you being such an asshole but look at me staring at you, I notice, you asshole."

There are times when I really enjoy this, watching the person who is staring come back to themselves, realize what they were doing, and then, embarrassed, look away. This is the typical response and it actually gives me heart. Most people don't quite realize what they are doing. Meaning, they aren't intentionally hurtful.

It is much more rare for someone to meet my stare and raise me a combative gaze, a kind of "Yeah, what are you gonna do about it?" moment. Then, I just shake my head dismissively and look away. I'm not interested in starting a fight. I am interested in bearing witness.

Rocki either ignores or intentionally doesn't see the staring public. She kind of exes them out of her consciousness while she is walking down the street. Early on in our relationship, I used to point out the gapers as we passed them: "My god, did you see that butthead, did you see them staring at you, what's up with that?" and assorted other indignant responses. Rocki asked me very directly, just once, to not draw her attention to what people were saying or doing or looking. The way I deal with it, said Rocki, is to sometimes just not notice.

This amazes Luca. She doesn't understand how her mãe cannot see or feel the stares. For Luca, the gazes are broadcast in high definition 3D. They fill the air around her and she tries to squeeze her body through them.

Hair on the chin is stimulated by dihydrotestosterone, which is produced by testosterone. How much hair a person has in determined by genetics and by season. If you have enough dihydrotestosterone, then your beard is thicker in the summer. My family line includes southern Italians. That means that I have some dark hairs that sprout on my chin. Not as many as Rocki, whose chin hairs are more light brown and gray. When she doesn't shave, they grow and then curve around her chin. It is pretty common for young children to want to touch them, to ask her if she is a boy or a girl. Rocki is very comfortable when young kids ask this. Their questions seem so honest.

The ten or twelve hairs I have, if left to themselves, wouldn't count as a beard. They probably wouldn't lead to gender-transgression, just the general sense that I wasn't up on my hygiene. Most gender-conforming female-identified people I know have a few hairs on the chin. Then, as we get older, they get thicker. And almost every single one of us shaves or plucks. Sometimes, as I lean into the mirror and pluck out the long dark hairs, I wonder what I am contributing to, and how this affects Luca while she watches me.

According to a study by Bristol-Myers (please, do laugh), 40% of people who identify as women in the US remove some amount of facial hair. This number doesn't count those who keep it. In other words, facial hair is normal. For all bodies. Bodies with more estrogen in them or less testosterone tend to have less hair on their faces. But we still have hair. Sometimes when we travel or visit family, Rocki shaves. It takes the edge off, the stares are still there but pulled back in their intensity. She usually does this as a gift - for her mother, for Luca, and sometimes for herself. A way of taking a break.

I am writing this while we are in Winnipeg, Canada. We have wandered around the city and driven an hour north to Lake Winnipeg. There, we played on the beach and marveled at this gorgeous land and the white sands. We are visiting family, Rocki's brother, who lives here now. We are learning the specific histories of settlers, of indigenous community, and of tension and change. We are noticing how the land is different, how "checking," as in checking account, is spelled "chequing," and that Canada is really this close.

Here is what else we are noticing: hardly anyone stares at Rocki. In all kinds of spaces, from the beach to downtown to the middle of the major tourist spaces, hardly anyone is staring. We are just another light-skinned family not speaking English as we learn about the Red and Assiniboine rivers. It's the Portuguese we speak that stands out, not the queerness. Nor the whiteness. Here, in Winnipeg, this whiteness protects us and norms us just as strongly as it does in Minneapolis. We are still on someone else's land, even though we are on vacation. And this entire piece is about privilege.

Rocki shaved before she came. Stroke, stroke, stroke: that's about all it takes. So we know that people not staring is, to some degree, about that. But not all of it. Our queer little family still usually stands out. People turn and look. They almost always do. But not this trip. We are just moving through space with the occasional longer glance in Rocki's direction. I am choosing to think it's someone with very good taste who has noticed how hot she is.


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Note, the Google add that showed here, if Susan didn't put it in...
Is one to Win Free LASER Hair Removal!

Sounds like a fun vacation.

oh, what total height of irony. all of the google ads to go with this story are about hair removal. thanks for pointing that out, LOrion. How absolutely and totally absurd.

Great piece, Susan. I was going to point out the Google ad for laser, too, but somebody beat me to it.

It would have been cool if you had included your partner's picture, so we could see the face of pride.

And see how hot she is ;)

I hope that everyone who heads up north enjoys Canadian hospitality, so that I can always consider my pride in my country well-placed. (I also now have to hope that none of my appreciative looks at anyone who might be used to judging ones have been interpreted as the latter :S)

Thank you Susan for so beautifully describing this 'bearing witness' that we partners of gender non-conforming women do...
I feel that same fierce protectiveness, and yes generally find people embarrassed to be caught in their stare, or made newly aware of their discomfort with my butch partner who doesn't fit in their gender boxes.
And even the one time when I almost got into trouble -with a stare-back at what turned out to be a drunken 'frat boy' type with a posse of similar guys - it turned out fine!

rapid butterfly | August 25, 2010 7:27 AM

thank you for this post, Susan (other than maybe I might quibble with the headline a little bit). Though my partner and I (she is a cis woman, I am a trans woman) do not have children, we both can relate well to the experiences you have described, especially that of "bearing witness." We've been very, very fortunate here at home but it is just fantastic when we are places where we are not stared at, where neither our queerness (as a lesbian couple) nor my trans history attract the slightest attention or comment.

Esther Wifler | August 25, 2010 10:46 AM

Good post.

I remember being with Rocki at the Zoo with a gaggle of kids and I found myself hostilly (hostilly?) staring back at people while Rocki gently told me it was not my battle and that she was fine.

Your child will grow up with a view of humanity that most children require and lack. Bless you.

I only refer to Raquel as a "lady" when I'm trying to make her mad. You have special powers.

Lou Strickland | August 25, 2010 1:18 PM

Thanks for reminding me how good we have it in Canada. Living in Toronto with my partner, my two kids and lots of visits from her 3 grown daughters we live open and safe. Both my daughters won awards from their primary school for integrity this year. I believe living as we do has allowed them to have a heightened sense of certain values. Luca is a lucky girl.

What an incredible piece. Susan, your writing has been a source of education, inspiration, and wisdom to me for many years. We have never met, but I truly thank you for the priceless work you do.

It's tough being that age and getting stares. Kids that age want approval so much.

Female hirsutism is not down to DHT or testosterone. More likely aldosterone which rises with overweight and increases blood pressure and water retention too.

I presume there has been a deliberate choice by your partner to suffer this rather than do electrolysis or laser, or use Vaniqa? If so I would suggest that it may be time to re-perform the family's decision-making process, including the child this time.